Earlier this year, it seemed like we were so close to victory in our seemingly endless slog against COVID-19—at least in the U.S.—as people continued to get vaccinated and cases dropped from their January peak. But since April, vaccination rates have fallen significantly in the U.S. with young adults the least likely to be vaccinated.
Being vaccinated now is more important than ever. In recent weeks, the more contagious delta variant has taken hold as COVID-19 cases have surged again. (The delta variant is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.) As of July 23, COVID-19 cases were on the rise in 90% of the U.S., with outbreaks in parts of the country that have low vaccine coverage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although vaccination rates have been ticking upwards again in light of delta, it’s still just as crucial for young and healthy people to get vaccinated.
Without young people—including kids—getting vaccinated, hopes for herd immunity in the U.S. are dim. Although kids as young as 12 can now get a shot, many young people haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine for a number of complex reasons, including the perception that they’re not at risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 or anxieties about potential side effects from the shots. Yet there are a number of very real reasons young and healthy people really should roll up their sleeves.
For more specific guidance on vaccination in the young and healthy, SELF spoke with three experts in vaccines, bioethics, and public health: Tony Moody, M.D., a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and an associate professor in the department of pediatrics, division of infectious diseases; S. Matthew Liao, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University; and Rhea Boyd, M.D., a pediatrician and child and community health advocate who focuses on structural racism, inequity, and health.
What would you say to a young, healthy person who is anxious about getting the vaccine?
Dr. Tony Moody: I think all the data up to this point really shows that the vaccines are safe and effective. You can’t deploy any medical intervention to this many people without seeing occasional side effects, but frankly, they’ve been incredibly [rare]. The vaccines are effective at reducing severe disease, and they appear to cut down on transmission to other people even if you do get sick. The data is overwhelming in favor of getting the vaccine.
Some people feel anxious about how fast the mRNA technology was developed, but it was because there was a need. We don’t have years of safety data on this vaccine, but no steps were skipped. Instead, regulators cut out a lot of the red tape that hangs up approval processes and didn’t waste time between steps. The FDA still did their normal data review, and the CDC is carefully reviewing side effects.
Dr. Matthew Liao: In terms of vaccine safety, the science is really good. More than 339 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. alone, and there’s no evidence of long-term bad effects. Reputable medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended everyone—including young people—take the vaccine.
Dr. Rhea Boyd: We speak to communities of color, predominantly Black and Latinx communities, across the country who are well aware of this nation’s history of racism in health care—many based on their own experiences seeking care. What may surprise people is, it’s not necessarily fear of historical racism that seems to be shaping people’s perceptions of the current vaccine. Instead, people are asking questions about the process by which the vaccines were developed and the safety data that exists. That tells me that people, at least the ones we are speaking to, are discerning consumers of health care, not just “suspicious.”
It is important that young people understand two things: One, people are more likely to be exposed to COVID right now, and if exposed, infected, than ever before. That is partly because the most common strain of COVID in the U.S. is the highly transmissible delta variant. And it is partly because many areas have relaxed important mitigation strategies like masking and distancing. As a result, those who remain unvaccinated are now more vulnerable than ever to infection. But the good news is, the best way to protect themselves and others is vaccination, and it is safe, effective, and completely free of charge.
What should young people know about COVID-19 vaccine side effects?
Dr. Moody: All the vaccines have some side effects, such as fever, soreness around the vaccination site, body aches, and headaches, which typically last for a few days at most. COVID vaccines seem to have a bit more side effects than the typical flu vaccine, but they also seem to be generating a very robust immune response. That seems to go hand in hand: If people are having side effects, it means the vaccine is revving up their immune system, although it still works even you can have no side effects on an individual level. These short-lived side effects are better than getting COVID itself.
For people who are concerned about blood clots [with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine] or heart inflammation, these risks do seem to be very rare. There are also no plausible arguments I’ve seen to suggest people will have a problem with future fertility, and there’s no reason to think that other side effects won’t emerge for years. If we thought this could happen, we wouldn’t recommend vaccination. I understand where the objection is coming from, but it’s a straw man argument. I find it’s an avoidance tactic.
What would you say to a young, healthy person who doesn’t think they need to get vaccinated?
Dr. Moody: People really need to think about how their actions impact others. Even if a person feels they’re not at risk for severe COVID-19 complications, they’re almost certainly coming into contact with people who are. By getting vaccinated, you’re helping your fellow citizens.
Some people argue they might still catch COVID even with a vaccine. [While these vaccines can help prevent you from getting a disease, they’re especially good at preventing you from getting severely sick.] We expect some breakthrough cases when we have a lot of transmission. What we want to see is a lower rate of complications due to COVID-19, which is exactly what we’re seeing with these vaccines.
Dr. Liao: It’s true that young people don’t get as sick on average, but they can. Nearly 10,000 people under the age of 40 have died in the U.S. of COVID-19 to date, and about one in three who are infected with COVID has gotten long COVID, or symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks. I know people who have long COVID, and it’s serious. For months you can’t breathe well, and you can lose your sense of taste and smell. It can affect your cognitive abilities and make you very fatigued. But even a mild infection could cause you to miss work or school because you have to quarantine at home.
Variants will also keep evolving as long as we don’t have the virus under control, and there’s plenty of evidence it’s because of people who are not vaccinated. Young people are viral factories. Even if they don’t get sick, they could be [allowing the virus to replicate and potentially create] new virus strains. Delta spreads much more quickly than previous strains, so imagine if there was a variant that affected even more people. Restrictions are coming again. If you care about being able to go to restaurants and bars, it’s very important to get the virus under control. The sooner we get the virus under control, the sooner we can return to normal. If you care about freedom, this is the best way to achieve it.
Where can young people find a vaccination site near them?
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to get a vaccine but their parents don’t agree?
Dr. Liao: Being a parent myself, I think that having parental input is very important. I can see why parents would want to weigh in. Kids should talk to their parents and try to reason with them. There’s a lot of vaccine misinformation, so kids can help educate their parents. The conversation you have depends on the parents’ concerns. Is it about the science, the risk, or religious objections? Figure out what parents are worried about and go from there. I also think it’s helpful to explain to parents the benefits of the vaccine.
Dr. Boyd: I am fortunate to live in a region where counties have enabled teens to seek vaccination independently. To be clear, it is ideal for parents and caregivers to participate in these decisions with their teen and young adult children. But it is also important that teens and young adults can speak with a health care provider independently and make choices to protect their health. We often do this when we care for young people’s reproductive health, and it is important to do so now when we care for their health during this pandemic.
What kinds of conversations did you have with your kids about getting vaccinated?
Dr. Moody: We are very pro-vaccine in my family, and my kids were all eager to get the vaccine and move on. My wife, my 16-year-old daughter, and I all participated in the Moderna phase 3 trial. My daughter and I were in the blind arm, so we got the real vaccine as soon as the unblinding happened.
Dr. Liao: I have a 12-year-old daughter who got the Pfizer vaccine on the second day it was available at our local CVS. She was super excited because she’s been quarantined all year and wants to see her friends. We had a conversation about the risks and benefits, but she wasn’t worried because we reassured her that the vaccine is safe.